Betsy Wolfe on the Drood all-star cast, Bullets Over Broadway, and playing Cathy for a new generation

Betsy Wolfe

Betsy Wolfe

In the past year and a half Betsy Wolfe has proven herself to be one of the most powerful women on the Broadway stage. After a stellar performance as Rosa Bud in the award-winning revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Betsy joined Adam Kantor to play Cathy in the off-Broadway revival of The Last Five Years. The pair recorded a new cast recording for The Last Five Years, released by Ghostlight Records, which continues to be one of the most talked about musical theatre albums of the fall. Next, Betsy will join the cast of the Woody Allen film-turned-musical Bullets Over Broadway. The talented, down-to-earth actress sat down with Stage Door Dish to discuss her recent performances, reviving one of the most beloved Broadway cult musicals, and her upcoming 54 Below concerts for The Last Five Years scheduled for Oct. 16 through 19.

SDD: With a role like Cathy in The Last Five Years, did you ever feel any pressure taking on a role that’s iconic to so many people?

Betsy Wolfe: Maybe it’s because I knew Sherie or I’ve reinvented characters before that I’ve learned that that pressure does nothing for you. It doesn’t fuel creativity. You never want to be different just to be different. I always looked at that character and said, ‘Well, what can I bring to this role? Why did they cast me?’ Our journeys were different because we’re different people and naturally, the portrayals would be different. I think there was an expectation for this show to resonate and land as well as that album did. That album is what made that show turn into a cult classic, very much like Side Show. Many people didn’t get to see the actual show and all they had was this album so in their minds, they could make their mind up about flaws in the show that they couldn’t even see. I think there was a pressure of wanting to make the stage version in expectation of what people wanted. The truth is that the material is so strong and that as long as you are absolutely truthful to your story and your journey, and I hope we were successful in that, then people don’t have to compare. They can just say, ‘This is The Last Five Years of this generation.’ I hope that in ten years, there’s another one and that they won’t feel compared to us. It’ll be their journey.

SDD: Can you tell me about the recording process and whether there was an expectation there as well?

BW: Cast albums are just the craziest things in themselves. You go in the studio for one day. I’ve recorded the Drood album and a few others where I just sing a little bit here and there, but this is every other song. You have the entire day to record this album and I remember writing down that I sang 28 complete songs that day. As a singer, period, no one wants to do that amount of material in one day. Forget what the album was, singing 28 songs and going, ‘There’s no way I can possibly sound my best.’ I’m so glad that we got to do the album right after the show closed because I was able to stay in that place and make it truthful to the show that we did. I feel like so many albums now sound digitalized and the ideal version of what the show could have been. This album has a live, raw quality to it, kind of a throwback to how they used to record things in one open room. I’m really proud because I think that the album represents the show that we put on at Second Stage.

SDD: Did you talk to Sherie about the role because you knew each other from Everyday Rapture? Did you get any advice from her?

BW: Oddly enough, my relationship with Sherie is mostly a personal one. I’m sure that so weird because you would think that we would have talked about Cathy. I feel like I know her pretty intimately and I think that if I had asked, she would have happily shared. There were just things that we didn’t need to talk about. I love her as a mom and as a person and respect her immensely as an artist. The one thing she said to me was, ‘Of course they hired you.’ I think one of the biggest compliments from her to me was her saying, ‘No one else could do this but you.’ That was almost her way of saying, ‘You’re going to be fine. You don’t need to seek out approval.’ That meant a lot to me, her just letting me find my own journey with it. She knows me as an artist, too, and that I would respect that and that it would speak to me.

SDD: The characters of Jamie and Cathy are difficult because they can both be seen as the victim or the villain in the role. Were you ever worried that the audience wouldn’t sympathize with your half of the story?

BW: Absolutely. I think the way it seems to be written is that you see Cathy first, somewhat dejected and hopeless, and it’s probably a lot easier for the audience to connect with the other character, who is at the prime of his life and positive and youthful. The truth is, I really had to let go of what I thought the audience was going to think because you can never please an audience as a whole, no matter how many hundreds of people are out there. You do one thing one way and the person in the audience says, ‘That wasn’t the right choice.’ I get that you have to please an audience in order to sell tickets and have a show that runs. In some factor, that matters. For this story, it was important for me to be absolutely truthful as I could be for her journey. Once I found that journey, I think that those pieces fell into place and I would like to believe that Adam and I both found moments where we were both feeling lesser or the powerful one in the relationship. I’d like to believe we found a balance between all of those different emotions and characteristics.

SDD: For you, it was more about the emotional integrity rather than ‘I’m the hero’?

BW: Absolutely, because I can’t tell them how to feel about me. If I feel a certain way, and that’s an action for that song, I know what that is. This is what’s beautiful about theatre, that my interpretation will be interpreted tons of ways. I hope that I can be clear and that my motivation for something will come across, but that’s what’s beautiful, that people’s perception is always going to be different. No matter what, even if we decided to make this like ‘Jamie is the bad guy and Cathy is the hero,’ no matter what, each person will view that differently. We could’ve put the writing on the wall and people, depending on their personal story or their history, would have thought a certain thing. Our job as actors is to really tell a truthful story and the audience will perceive it how they want.

SDD: Were there any aspects of Cathy as a character that you didn’t see until you started playing the role or became more intimately familiar with her? Were there any things that surprised you about the character?

BW: Sure. I don’t know if I still ever figured her out. Even seeing this stuff the past week, it’s tough to let this one go because I have a feeling that this show, depending on what’s happening in life and where you are, will always mean different things. If I was lucky every night or every couple nights, I would start to go, ‘Oh, maybe that’s how she felt that triggered her response to something.’ You explore those certain things. For me, really finding her strength was important because a lot of times, she’s perceived as a weak character. Initially, when I heard it, I perceived her as maybe more of the problem in the relationship. I tried to always challenge myself and find opportunities to say, ‘Well, maybe this happened. How did this make you feel?’

SDD: You and your stage partner, Adam Kantor, have such amazing chemistry. Many would credit the production’s success to exactly that. Do you have a favorite part of performing with him?

BW: I have a lot of memories from rehearsals that I’ll always treasure.

SDD: Can you share one?

BW: There was one moment where he was coming on in the boat during rehearsals and I really was able to look at this person not just as a scene partner but not just a fellow actor or Jamie. I’m not even sure why it struck me as being so beautiful in that moment, but he was just sitting in the boat and we were teching this scene. The lights were on him and I just saw him. I saw this look of contentment in his eyes and I was like, ‘I really really love this person.’ There have been moments along the way that I’ve just loved. I loved connecting in rehearsals, oddly enough, because we don’t share the stage with each other. We were able to connect more in rehearsals. I just try to appreciate him and enjoy him has a human being. He’s a wonderful, wonderful person.

SDD: Did you find it challenging to do almost an entire show on stage by yourself and communicate with someone who isn’t there?

BW: At first, it was extremely challenging and by the end I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t want another scene partner again.’ It was so incredibly freeing. It’s the craziest thing to do a show where you are virtually in your head the entire time and not talking to the audience. I remember that there were moments in Everyday Rapture where Sherie was doing the show and I thought, ‘How is she doing that?’ It’s insanely difficult because you’re just out there by yourself. A lot of the time, she could use the audience but in our show, we didn’t have that. There were certain numbers where we’d use people or talk to people, but there are so many moments in that show where you are in your head and you are replaying things or saying the things you wish you could’ve said to the other person in that moment. I actually found it incredibly freeing by the end of the run. I learned a lot about myself and how I sometimes have inhibitions with another scene partner. How to not monitor yourself was a lovely thing to learn during this piece that I hope will translate when I go back to having scene partners.

SDD: On that note, you’re slated to be part of Bullets Over Broadway, a new musical. Can you tell us anything about your involvement with that?

BW: I participated in a first reading and luckily, after that, they asked me to come on board for the whole project. That was terrifying in itself, signing onto a year-and-a-half long commitment after one week. I remember signing on even before The Last Five Years, so I just had no idea that was going to happen. It’s so funny that as an actor, you crave security and yet you fear it. I struggle with that still, wanting to know my next job but also wanting to know that I may find something new. This piece was a no-brainer for me. Of course, Woody Allen and Susan Stroman are geniuses. The team is just the crème de le crème. I have always been involved in amazing and fun revivals. I had a year of great revivals, really, with Merrily We Roll Along and Drood and The Last Five Years. I loved every minute of it. Here’s an opportunity to create a brand new role. I just thought, ‘Well, that’s a new challenge.’ It’ll also be challenging to do a show for that long. That scared me and I like to do things that scare me.

SDD: Can you tell us a bit about your role?

BW: I play the girlfriend of a struggling writer which should sound familiar because that’s what I played in Merrily and The Last Five Years. I’m noticing a trend here. I play the role of Ellen, who is Zach Braff’s girlfriend. John Cusack played his role in the movie. She’s probably one of the more normal characters. As Woody says, there are cartoon characters in this piece and there are the real-life characters. She has these needs and she has to figure out if they’re being met or not in the way that life happens. Without giving away too much, she goes for what she thinks she needs and grabs it and then comes back and decides, ‘Maybe what I had was great.’ It’s a great side story in the show.

SDD: Going back to Merrily, which is a bit of a throwback at this point, do you have any favorite memories from that experience? Was there anything that you took away from it, even though it wasn’t a long experience?

BW: It wasn’t long, but it was one of the most memorable. It will remain one of the poignant and most memorable experiences of my career. That month-and-a-half will always stick with me. I think it has largely to do with the timing, the creative team, and the cast, every single one of those cast members. For me, growing up a huge Sondheim and James Lapine fan, that was the biggest pat on the back of affirmation of ‘You’re doing okay’ that I’ve ever had theatrically. Just to get to sing this music from this man that I obviously respect immensely and to be in the production that he very much had a hand in was something I’ll really treasure forever. It’s funny, because I’m sure I’ll do projects that maybe last for years and I won’t feel that way. That was extremely special.

SDD: Speaking of amazing casts, last year with Edwin Drood

BW: I get to work with silly, talented people. I don’t know how I keep sneaking in there and them saying, ‘Here Betsy, do you want to work with these people?’ Then I’m like, ‘I do, I do!’

SDD: With that project, there was a different ending every night. The cast must have been extremely close to make that work well every night. What do you think made that possible?

BW: Well, we all had a blast and we all had to be on the same team. In order to really make that show work, there has to be so much trust and so much love for the other actors. That was one of the most ridiculously talented casts I’ve ever been a part of. A lot of us are still friends. We still keep in contact, and that’s sometimes how I measure the success of a show personally. There are projects that you go and do and you maybe take away one or two people but then there are these projects where you are fortunate enough to leave having made some really wonderful connections. That also, I think, is reflected in the show. This show especially, when we all had to work together as an acting troupe onstage, there had to be a lot of trust in each other. Rehearsal was fun because it was terrifying because we never who they would pick for this or that. It was thrilling. I think that one of the most exciting things was that if someone who didn’t get chosen a lot was chosen, we would go watch them in the wings. I think it was a very supportive cast.

SDD: Is there anyone on Broadway you’d love to work with right now?

BW: Carol Burnett. My other big dream was to work with Danny Burstein but I’ll get to work with him doing Opera at the Met this fall. I can check that off, too. He’s my comedic idol.

SDD: Do you have an ultimate dream role?

BW: For lack of something better, I’ve been a part of this show calls Tales of the City for a while and I really hope that resurfaces. There’s something I really love about that character. I’d also like to think that role hasn’t been written yet.

SDD: Do you have a current obsession?

BW: House of Cards. I watched the first season way too fast. They can’t make the second season fast enough.

SDD: Can you describe the following people in five words or less? Adam Kantor.

BW: Mysterious, generous, comrade, coconut water.

SDD: Jason Robert Brown.

BW: Tall, specific, loving, talented.

SDD: Stephanie J. Block.

BW: Someone just asked me about her the other day and I feel like I used some of these words: sister, genuine, intense, generous.

Information and tickets for The Last Five Years concert can be found at 54Below.com. The new The Last Five Years cast recording is available on iTunes

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